Mon, 16 Dec 2019

Sondland Insists Everyone Was in the Loop on Ukraine

Voice of America
21 Nov 2019, 16:05 GMT+10

WASHINGTON - As Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, recounted in riveting testimony in the House of Representatives impeachment hearings Wednesday, "Everyone was in the loop."

The legion of top U.S. officials well aware of President Donald Trump's efforts this summer to get Ukraine to carry out investigations that would help Trump politically ranged from Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, then-national security adviser John Bolton and State Department counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl, Sondland testified.

"We kept the leadership of the State Department and the [National Security Council] informed of our activities," Sondland said in his opening statement. "They knew what we were doing and why."

Sondland's testimony tying senior officials to a pressure campaign at the center of the impeachment inquiry into Trump triggered a prompt pushback.

In a statement, Pence's office said the vice president "never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations."

Pompeo reaction

Pompeo told reporters that he did not watch Sondland's testimony, but a State Department spokesperson said that Sondland "never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents."

Other officials named by Sondland have not commented.

Sondland, a wealthy hotel businessman who contributed $1 million to Trump's 2017 inaugural committee, was the most widely anticipated witness during this week's impeachment hearings. Unlike other officials involved in the Ukraine affair, the longtime Republican donor seemingly had a direct line to Trump and occasionally called him at the White House.

Although Ukraine was not technically part of his portfolio, Sondland teamed up with two others - then-U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry - to press the Ukrainian government to commit to two sets of investigations demanded by Trump.

One was a corruption probe of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian natural gas producer where former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, worked as a highly paid director. The other was an examination of a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The theory has been widely debunked.

The request to investigate the two issues came straight from the president via his personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Sondland testified.

"We followed the president's orders," Sondland said.

Full knowledge

And it was all done with the full knowledge of top administration officials, even after Trump ordered a freeze of nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine in mid-July, he said.

"Precisely because we did not think that we were engaging in improper behavior, we made every effort to ensure that the relevant decision-makers at the National Security Council and the State Department knew the important details of our efforts," Sondland testified. "The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false."

The monthslong effort to prod Ukraine picked up in late May after the troika of Sondland, Volker and Perry met with Trump in the Oval Office and were directed to work with Giuliani on Ukraine policy.

The group wanted to secure a meeting between Trump and Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and later a lifting of a freeze on millions in military aid. Giuliani made clear to the group that Trump's condition for the meeting and the releasing the aid was a public commitment to the investigations.

During his closed-door deposition in October, Sondland struggled to recall key events, including telling a senior Zelenskiy aide that the military assistance was tied to the opening of investigations.

On Wednesday, Sondland came into the public testimony armed with text messages and emails that he claimed show that senior administration officials were informed about "the Ukraine efforts" from the day the three officials first met with Trump on May 23 until the military aid was released by the administration on September 11.

WATCH: Sondland to US Lawmakers: Trump Conditioned Aid to Ukraine on Investigations

Sondland to US Lawmakers: Trump Conditioned Aid to Ukraine on Investigations video player. Embed Copy Link

On July 13, Sondland wrote to Tim Morrison, the newly appointed Russia director on the National Security Council, suggesting that a call between Trump and Zelenskiy take place before the July 21 parliamentary elections in Ukraine.

"Sole purpose is for Zelenskiy to give Potus [the president] assurances of new sheriff in town," Sondland wrote. "Corruption ending, unbundling moving forward and any hampered investigations will be allowed to move forward transparently."

On July 19, Sondland wrote, he emailed Pompeo, Perry, Mulvaney and other senior officials to inform them that he had just talked to Zelenskiy and that Zelenskiy was prepared to receive Trump's call.

"[Zelenskiy] will assure [Trump] that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will turn over every stone,'" Sondland said.

Mulvaney responded, "I asked NSC to set it up for tomorrow," according to Sondland.

July 25 call

The fateful call during which Trump asked Zelenskiy to undertake the investigations was postponed until July 25.

Referring to his communication with senior Trump administration officials, Sondland testified, "Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the presidential call."

In August, with the Ukrainian aid on hold for reasons that Sondland contends he did not fully understand, Sondland sent an email to Pompeo through two aides explaining that he and Volker had negotiated a statement about new corruption investigations that Zelenskiy would deliver ahead of a White House meeting.

"The contents will hopefully make the boss happy enough to authorize an investigation," Sondland wrote on Aug. 11. "[Zelenskiy] plans to have a big presser on the openness subject (including specifics) next week."

"Gordon, I'll pass to S," Pompeo's executive secretary, Lisa Kenna, replied, using shorthand for secretary of state.

In late August, Sondland again emailed Pompeo, this time asking whether a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy in Warsaw during the upcoming 80th anniversary of the start of World War II on September 1 "could help break the logjam" over the frozen aid.

"Should we block time in Warsaw for a short pull aside for Potus to meet Zelenskiy?" Sondland wrote. "I would ask Zelenskiy to look him in the eye and tell him that once Ukraine's new justice folks are in place [in mid-September], that [Zelenskiy] should be able to move forward publicly and with confidence on those issues of importance to Potus and to the US. Hopefully that will break the logjam."

Pompeo replied, "Yes," according to Sondland.

Trump had to cancel his plans to travel to Warsaw because Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas. He sent Pence in his stead. In his testimony, Sondland said that he told Pence before his meeting with Zelenskiy in Warsaw that he had grown concerned that "the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations."

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